A Short Essay on the Religious Imagination, with special reference to Anton Chekhov and a personal experience.

It is inbuilt in mankind to suppose there are forces controlling his destiny beyond those he can manage for himself.This is self- evident in his obvious helplessness in the face of nature and the aggression of human instincts. Nature devastates and man devastates. What protection is there? The gods, not man, are responsible for events, and given that events are unpredictable and most often take a harsh toll, the gods apparently are not friendly to men. So they must be propitated. And how? With human blood. Why? Because life is the most precious attribute of a man, and what ought one give to the god but what is most precious?


Thus, in its earliest stages, human sacrifice is the rule.(1) It is endemic in the area where the Jewish people originate. The struggle against it can be traced as a “red thread” throughout the Old Testament, where it preempts much of the narrative. (2) The outcome of this struggle is prefigured in Genesis, when Isaac is replaced on the altar by a stag, sent by God as a substitute for Abraham’s son. There are many stories in the Old Testament, but there is but one overriding message: Love thy God. This God is One and to be feared and obeyed. How is His will known? Through the prophets, the first of whom, Moses, institutes His Commandments. Here then, the burden of the good life is put on man himself, not on unpredictable deities. God is only partly responsible for human vicissitudes. To thrive, man must cooperate, he must obey the Law. There is nothing in the Commandments that indicates how this God is to be worshiped, except with all one’s heart, mind, and strength. There is nothing in them that outlaws human sacrifice. But having established Jahweh as One, he is in natural competition with the multiplicity of gods in the surrounding area. And the hallmark of these gods is that they require human blood.) The zeal of the prophets is constantly directed against backsliding, against the bloodthirsty hunger of Baal and the worshipers who feed him their sons and daughters, against the temptation of the Hebrews to go over to them; the struggle is both religious and political. It will persist until Jerusalem is established and the Temple is built and the Ark is housed. The Hebrews, by the time they have built the Temple, have largely replaced human sacrifice with animal sacrifice. Blood is spilled, blood is required, but it is not the blood of beating human hearts. It has been replaced by the blood of birds and beasts.


If, in a nutshell, the message of the Old Testament is Love thy God, the message of the New Testament is Love thy Neighbor. In the Old,
God punishes Saul, after having commanded him to exterminate  the Amalekites, to the last man, woman, child and even beast, for sparing them. In other words, he is punished for being merciful.  This punishment epitomizes vengeance required and vengeance executed. In the New Testament, Israel, although a client of Rome, is a firmly established state. Rome may be the enemy, but Rome is far away. One’s neighbor is next door. He is to be loved, not conquered. Revenge – an eye of an eyes and a tooth for a tooth – is alchemized into forgiveness, “seventy times seven” times, an enemy is to be forgiven. Judgment is qualified by mercy.

The bridge that connects these opposing views is the shift in the meaning of sacrifice. The New Testament continues the story in an unprecedented way. In place of animal sacrifice, comes the one-time sacrifice of a man who symbolically incorporates all other types of sacrifice into himself, because, contrary even to his deepest wish, it is a sacrifice that is voluntary. Thus, the idea of sacrifice is transposed to the will of the individual man. It issues from the freedom to choose. When Jesus drives the money changers out of the Temple, he is not just driving out commerce. This act anticipates a rejection of the very notion that a bird or animal’s blood can count as an acceptable offering to God. Henceforth it will be reconfigured in bread and wine, offered as a sacrifice in the Mass. What nourishes man nourishes God.

In John, Jesus commands his disciples to love each other as he has loved them. This is the lead-in to the famous ssaying: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The place taken by Love in the New Testament as opposed to Law in the Old is summarized in this saying, and with it, the idea of love, not propitiation or appeasement, as the basis for sacrifice. It culminates in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.(3)

From this sacrifice derives a rationale for suffering conspicuously absent in antiquity. To the Greeks, suffering was unavoidable and pointless, a condition of the universe. A great draft of cosmic indifference whistles through Greek tragedy. In the Old Testament personal suffering is figured in Job, a story which humbles the imagination. Job accepts his lot unconditionally as God’s will, and with acceptance propsperity redoubles. With the Resurrection, something new is introduced: Jesus-become-Christ valorizes suffering by making it into an example. This view is in wide currency today, especially as a consolation for pain. But one remembers the woman who, when offered Jesus as a consolatory example, replies: “Yes, but Jesus suffered for three hours. I have suffered a lifetime.” It is convenient, perhaps plausible, but remains as empty as the words of Job’s comforters, unless joined to some personal persuasion that there is a good to be found in pain. What is purpose-driven is acceptable. If one can indeed find a purpose, or invent a purpose, even after the fact, the ordeal is more easily withstood.

And now we come to Chekhov, and the remarkable way he suggests suffering, shorn of a basis in religious thought, is sacrificial in and of itself. Unlike any playwright in the English-speaking canon, Chekhov writes characters whose restlessness seeks a meaning to life, to their trials and vexations, their suffering and pain. Hamlet and MacBeth despair. But they do not comfort themselves with ideology. (4) In “The Seagull,” art substitutes for religion. In “Uncle Vanya,” Sonia, still within the tradition of faith, voices a belief in the afterlife, nay, the Millenium, which feels more like a fervent wish than a conviction. But in the next play, “The Three Sisters,” all reference to Christianity is displaced by what one might call a type of humanism, except one thinks humanism must be better tailored to the actual needs of living men and women. People suffer in the present so the future will be happy for others.


Our suffering will be changed to joy for those who come after us.

And in “The Cherry Orchard:


The moon is rising. Happiness is nearing. I can see it.. and if we miss it… does it really matter? It will arrive for others.

But Vershinin in “The Three Sisters” takes this idea a step further:


In two or three hundred years… a new and happy life will begin… it is our lives and our effort and yes! our suffering that is helping to bring it about, and, if you like, our only happiness.

Future happiness is dependent on present suffering. So that suffering not only has a rationale, it is necessary. It is not even one’s children or grandchildren who are being spoken of here. It is a wolloping abstraction that has overwhelmed the concrete.

The most remarkable feature of this kind of thinking is that it prefigures the ideology of the October Revolution, Thus, the notorious phrase “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” to justify famine, mass murder, and eventually, the police state. Its cruelty and absurdity, its anti-humanistic thrust which turns the whole project upside down – the omelette was illusory – is epitomized in the tragic resonance of Mandelstam’s lines:

For the thundering glory of future generations,/for the sake of a tall race of men/ I have forfeited my seat at the feast of my fathers,/ I have laid down my honor and my good cheer.

Here I would like to append a footnote from personal experience. It is my belief that suffering is made salutary – that is, builds a bridge to others rather than isolates from them – only when it has been deprived of any meaning one is likely to ascribe to it – when it is made naked, is denuded of all props.(5) I have in mind not so much physical pain as the Chekhovian variety: mental anquish, or despair; and to this end, in an attempt to make sense of past events, once wrote the paragraph which follows:

All this time, I had borne with the pressures of disintegration,    vaguely expecting that one day I would simply die, as if from internal combustion. I would not have to kill myself. It would happen for me. Past and future were equally closed off. I could not anticipate. I could not remember. I, who had once been thought promising, at twenty-five had come on terminal failure; and so shame was added to the witch’s broth of despair and runaway guilt. I knew that I had long since overstepped the boundary of normal human unhappiness with the onslaught of new geographies in consciousness; but I did not give this new territory a name. The point at which it occurred to me that something else might be at play – that the borderline of sanity had been crossed – was when, one afternoon in late February, vibrations in my palms announced that I was in the grip of a religious hallucination.

Napoleon and Christ are the polar cliches of the asylum, the one an exemplar of absolute power, the other of absolute helplessness. The lunatic who thinks he is Napoleon removes himself from suffering through the illusion of control. The lunatic who thinks he is Christ identifies with suffering to such a degree that he incorporates it into himself in order to justify it. He makes of himself the Exemplary Victim. The lure of meaning is more compelling than suffering itself when suffering without meaning is pushed to its limits. The false meaning of the Exemplary Victim is a solution to the search for meaning that is otherwise fruitless.

I understood in that moment that suffering has no meaning. Meaning is imposed on it. This was the endpoint of my journey down. I could go no lower.(5)

And indeed, isn’t it precisely here that the Christian role model kicks in? For it is undeniable that in two of the Gospels, the words: “My God my God, why has Thou forsaken me” – are ascribed to the man on the cross? And what can these words mean but that to him, his suffering is denuded of meaning? has none?

I continue in the conviction that it is not until the individual recognizes and ackhowledges that suffering is meaningless, that some remedy in the psyche is affected, that it is incorporated into experience in a way that does not lead to apathy, cynacism, pessimism, or nihilism. With these in the forefront, nothing can be advanced, nothing redeemed. In the Biblical story, this acknowledgment is followed by resurrection. (6)


1. It is interesting to note, in this respect, that the Greeks, and subsequently the Romans, seem to have avoided the stage of human sacrifice. The Illiad and Aenead are full of the blood of beasts – In both epics great hecatombs of cattle are offered in celebration and supplication to the denizens of Olympus; who themselves are viewed not as inimical to man, but so capricious in their quarrels and jealousies and vainglory, that they are almost indistinquishable from those they rule – the Greek religious imagination, like its art, is deeply humanistic.

There is an exception in the story of Iphegineia, the daughter of Agamemnon. An oracle requires her to be sacrificed to Artemis in order to stir up the winds and set sail for Troy. As in the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, she is rescued on the altar, when replaced by a stag (deer). Artemis, like God, does not want human blood.

2. It is difficult to know what to make of the story of Japtheth’sdaughter, who, like Jairus’ daughter in the New, is nameless. (Judges ll:29) It might be called an “inadvertant” sacrifice. Jeptheth is a general who makes a bargain with God: Give me success in battle and I will give you (as a “burnt offering”)_ the first creature to exit my house on my return. He conquers the Ammonites, and when his daughter, rejoicing with dance and music, comes to meet him, he is obligated to keep his word. The story, in its irony, has a Greek flavor. Interpreters don’t know what to make of it. Two are punished: Japtheth, who loses his beloved only child, and with her, the hope of posterity; and the daughter, whose life is forfeit. What is the meaning? That the sins of the fathers are visited on the children? But what is the sin? Overconfidence? Rashness? Bargain-making with God? A bargain implies a transaction between equals, and this would, in fact, be blasphemous. Some interpretations argue that her life is spared, as, although willing enough to comply with her father’s rash vow, she asks for two months’ grace “to bewail her virginity”: the punishment brought on her father, who cannot hope to perpetuate his line, and if spared, on herself, being cut off from marriage and children, a Hebrew woman’s best hope; a request that is granted, after which, Japtheth “did with her according to the vow he had vowed” – serves her up to the fire, one would think: but the curious sentence is added “and she knew no man.” The result was the institution of a sort of four-day holiday on which the “daughters of Israel” remember this other daughter and lament – what? her death? Perpetual virginity?

3. What a paradox that it was precisely when the Gospels were made accessible through translation, and, one would have thought, Jesus’s rejection of violence could not be gainsaid, the wars of religion started to gather steam. The wine – content – was turned sour by the bottle – doctrine.

4. For a fuller elaboration of this theme in Chekhov’s plays, see my introduction to Uncle Vanya and Other Plays, Bantam Press, 1994.

5. Of course, one can never be sure. Life is still being lived, with possibilities of other bottoms, other intelligence.

6. And yet and yet… how many reports from the camps indicate that what often kept those alive who survived was a sense of purpose; but this was not purpose TO suffering, it was the purpose
in the subject to bear witness to its senselessness.